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A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Mahrani of Jaiper, by Gayatri Devi.

March 21, 2014

A Princess Remembers: The Memoirs of the Mahrani of Jaiper,  by Gayatri Devi.  Rupa & Co (1996), Edition: Rev Upd, Paperback, 408 pages.   First published in 1977.

SOUTH ASIAN WOMEN WRITERS

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A richly detailed autobiography by a woman who grew up as a princess in eastern India in the early 20th century and was the wife of a Maharaja when India became independent.

Gayatri Devi is a fascinating woman, intelligent and knowlegeable about the world around her.  Born in 1919 and writing about 1970, she was part of major changes in India, including the coming of independence, the separation of Pakistan, and the dismantlement of the Indian kingdoms where her life had been centered.  She tells the story of her life with clarity and charm helping readers appreciate the places in India and the people about whom she cared most deeply.

Growing up in Cooch Behar, a kingdom north of Calcutta, Devi’s childhood was a life of extreme privilege. Her family was moderately progressive and lived somewhat informally. Her father was the ruler of the kingdom, but he died when she was quite young.  Her mother became regent for her oldest brother until he came of age.  Originally the daughter of the maharaja of Baroda on the western coast of India, her mother entertained extensively, keeping the family at the center of princely society.  In writing about these years, Devi gives us details and anecdotes which bring to life the rituals and routines of princely life.  Hunting, polo, and riding elephants were regular occurrences.  Trips to England helped keep the family part of an international circle which included British royalty.

The Maharajah of Jaipur, a kingdom north of Delhi, was a young man named Jai, a superior polo player and a friend of Devi’s family who was included among the many guests at their house in Calcutta.  Jai became attracted to Devi and decided to marry her “when she grew up.” Devi worshiped him.  They were married although he already had two other wives and four children by them.  When she went to Jaipur as his bride, Devi moved into a society where purdah, the exclusion of women from male view, was more strictly followed than in her home kingdom.  With the support of her husband, she slowly found ways to ease the restrictions.  While unwilling to spend her life in total seclusion, Devi could see the positive values of life in the zenana, the women’s section of the palace.  She also writes about the friendships she developed with Jai’s other wives.

World War II brought disruption to the India. Jai spend time away from his kingdom, but neither he nor his kingdom were directly hurt. In his absence, Devi became more involved in philanthropic activities and in the running of the palace.  When war ended, India was separated from Pakistan and both were granted full independence.  The princes gave up the kingdoms they ruled in return for privileges and regular payments.  Jaipur was spared the horrors that many Indians faced as Hindus and Muslims engaged in widespread violence.  Both Jaipur and Cooch Behar where Devi’s brother ruled had long traditions of equal treatment of all religions.  Although the rulers were Hindu, they had high officials who were Muslims.  As violence swept across the dividing nations, both rulers spoke out promising to protect Muslims in their lands.

Although Devi and her husband had been supportive of the cause of independence, they saw reasons to be critical of the Congress Party governance in India.  As maharaja, Jai had worked hard for the people of his kingdom and was loved by his people.  Both he and his people viewed him as their father who would take care of them, but when the kingdom was united into the new India, they lost his attentive care.  The national government even started to tear down the distinctive walls which surrounded the city of Jaipur. When Indria Gandhi took over the government, they were appalled by her actions.  Eventually Devi joined a political party opposed to the Congress Party and was elected to the national Parliament.  She tells of how for the first time she traveled around Jaipur and became acquainted with all segments of the population.  The simple dignity of village people impressed her.  Although she tried to serve them well, her first concern was always her husband.  Shortly after he died playing polo, the game he loved, she wrote this book.

Wisely Devi included photographs of her self, her family, and the palaces in which she lived in her book. She also writes movingly of the visual beauty around her.  Her descriptions of Jaipur and its castles inspired me to look the city up online.  Actually seeing the pictures helped me appreciate what life could be like for Indian royalty in the first half of the twentieth century.  Here are some examples.

The story of A Princess Remembers is similar to Raj, the fictional account of a woman’s life in the Indian kingdoms by Gita Mehta.  I enjoyed Raj, but I found this to be a better book.  I simply like autobiographies.  I realize, of course, that Devi probably exaggerated some points and ignored others, but I liked the sense that her overall story was grounded in her own experiences.  I felt more intimately involved in her life than in Mehta’s book as I read about the families elephants and banquets.   In addition, Devi’s treatment of the post-Independence years was much more complete than that of Mehta.   I learned a great deal of Indian history here.

A Princess Remembers is a wonderful book and I recommend it heartily to all readers, especially those interested in India.

Thanks to Aarti at Booklust for suggesting this book to me.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. aartichapati permalink
    March 23, 2014 9:38 pm

    Glad you enjoyed this one! I agree that she probably exaggerated some parts (such as her impact as an elected official) and ignored other parts (such as how she probably fully believed in the idea that people in different castes deserve different things), but it was a very interesting story and a great peek into a recent history that we hardly ever see signs of any more.

  2. March 24, 2014 10:27 am

    Absolutely. You are a wonderful source for books from India, especially those that are not just newly published. Again. Thank you.

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